BRISTOL — Needing a big win this past Saturday to earn a berth in the Division III high school playoffs for the second straight season, the Mount Abraham-Vergennes football team did just that.
With the No. 4 seed on the line, the Eagles scored touchdowns the first six times they had the ball and held visiting Poultney to 30 first-half yards on the way to a 38-0 halftime lead and a 45-24 victory.
The Eagles improved to 6-3 and advanced to a semifinal on Saturday at 2 p.m. at undefeated defending champion Woodstock, while Poultney — a team Mount Abe had never before defeated — finished at 5-4.
The Eagles rushed for 341 yards on 49 attempts and finished with a 411-231 edge in total yards. And they held the Blue Devils to 76 yards on the ground, including 61 yards in 19 attempts for all-star back Tyler Rice.
Senior defensive lineman and tri-captain Wade Steele, a member of the Vergennes contingent, talked about the work of both lines.
“To see our offensive line just dominate, that’s one thing we’ve had just pounded into our heads the whole year is just get off the ball,” Steele said. “And today we gave holes for our running backs, and our running backs showed what we can do with a big hole.”
Eagle senior Cody Alexander led the way with 174 yards on 21 carries, and junior Tommy Lee Hodsden scored two touchdowns and amassed 111 yards on just six carries before leaving in the second quarter with what Coach Ernie Senecal later confirmed will be a season-ending knee injury.
They were running behind a group that included Justice Fanning, Matt Mullin, Scott Mullin, Gary Caldwell, Paul Sabourin, Lucas Nezin and Mike Aube. Fullback Austin Lafayette (13 carries, 42 yards) also contributed several pancake blocks leading the way for Alexander and Hodsden.
On the other side of the ball, Steele — who picked up two of the Eagles’ three sacks of Poultney quarterback James Olson — said the line has improved because it has played together all season.
“Our defensive line, it’s been the same core five all year,” Steele said. “We all know what to do.”
Senecal agreed, and said the Eagles upset hopes on Friday will rest on the performance of the Eagle lines.
“I thought our line played outstanding today, especially our offensive line in the first half,” Senecal said. “Our line is going to have to play well against Woodstock … I know we’re a better football team than when we went down there in September.”
The loss of Hodsden and an ankle injury to speedy senior Cody Driscoll, who sat out this past Saturday, will give the Eagle coaches decisions to make this week. Senecal said Alexander or Aaron Benway, or both, could play quarterback vs. the Wasps, as they did vs. Poultney after Hodsden left, with Alexander moving to tailback when Benway takes snaps. Driscoll could also play tailback if healthy.
The Eagles — the last team to defeat the Wasps, 20-0 in the second week of 2011 — will also have to contain running back Ed Doton and quarterback Hunter Schmell. Woodstock won, 53-13, earlier this season, as the Eagles turned the ball over a handful of times.
“We’ve definitely got to play mistake-free football,” Senecal said. “Against those guys there’s no way we can turn the ball over like that and expect to stay in the game.”
Steele believes the Eagles have a shot if the lines play as well as they did vs. Poultney.
“Our offensive line played amazing today, and our defensive line did just as good,” he said. “I know we are not going to shut out Woodstock, but if can go out and hold them to three touchdowns, I feel like we can beat them.”
Certainly, the Eagles were effective against Poultney on Saturday. The game started with Aaron Rowell recovering a shanked Mount Abe kickoff at the Poultney 46. Alexander, at QB, hit Travis Bachand for 28 yards on the first play from scrimmage, and four plays later scored on a two-yard run to make it 6-0.
The Eagles then recovered a Poultney fumble at the Devil 40, and four plays later Alexander tossed a 22-yard strike to Dan McGrath that made it 13-0 after Lafayette kicked the point-after at 7:30.
Rowell then intercepted Olson and returned it 15 yards to the Poultney 41, a play that led to a 36-yard Hodsden run behind on a sweep right and a sharp cut back over the middle. That made it 19-0 at 5:05.
The Eagles then stuffed Rice for a yard loss on fourth-and-one from the Mount Abe 46, and took over at their 47. Three plays later, Hodsden again ran right and cut back, this time for a 43-yard score that gave the Eagles a 25-0 lead at 0:43 of the first quarter.
Mount Abe marched 73 yards on its next possession despite the injury to Hodsden, this time capping it with an 18-yard toss from Benway to Mike White at 6:35 of the second. White also capped the Eagles’ final drive of the period, a 60-yard march in which Alexander ran four times for 44 yards. White ran in the final seven yards on a reverse at 1:26, and it was 38-0 at the half.
Olson hit passes as the second half opened, including a four-yarder to Sam White after Tyler Manning recovered an Eagle fumble at the Mount Abe 27 on the opening possession. Olson also completed two long passes in the next Devil drive, which was capped with a six-yard Rice run at 4:16 that made it 38-16.
But the Eagles responded with a 78-yard march, mostly behind Alexander’s running, that ended with Lafayette scoring from a yard out at 11:26 of the third.
McGrath sacked Olson and forced a fumble that Caldwell recovered on the next Devil possession, but Poultney scored on its final possession despite a Caldwell sack. Olson gained 34 yards on a fake punt and then tossed a TD pass to Alexander Field.
Saturday’s game was the last on their home field for the Eagle seniors.
“To start off the game I was really emotional, you know, it’s my senior game, my last one (here),” Steele said. “To know that we walked off this field as winners, we were undefeated at home this year. That makes me so proud.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]